Guest Post from Erin Lindsey: Gender in “The Bloodbound”

cover of Bloodhound

Welcome Erin Lindsey, author of the new novel Bloodbound!  In this guest post, Erin talks about how readers and reviewers see gender in Bloodbound, and how Erin herself sees gender roles in the Bloodbound universe.

If I needed any reminder that gender in SF/F is a hot topic these days, publicity around THE BLOODBOUND has certainly served it up. The early buzz has made much of the fact that the protagonist, Alix Black, is female. I have to admit, I’m a little surprised this is still a Thing. I mean, there are loads of female protagonists out there. Maybe Alix is a little unusual in that she’s a soldier, one who goes on to become the king’s bodyguard. But still… 2014, right?

A number of early reviews have referred, directly or indirectly, to “unusual” gender roles in the book. “Modern gender equality”, as one reviewer put it. Well, yes – and no. Aside from the fact that I wouldn’t call modern gender roles equal, I wouldn’t characterise the gender roles in THE BLOODBOUND as such either. More equal than traditional fantasy, certainly, but let’s be honest, that’s not setting the bar very high.

Women in the Kingdom of Alden do have more sexual freedom than you’d typically find in a medieval setting. Sex before marriage isn’t proscribed, morally or legally, so long as there are no complications (i.e. pregnancy). But that doesn’t mean women have much freedom to choose in the long run. They’re still expected to marry and have children, and marriage – especially in the higher ranks of society – is viewed primarily as a political and economic transaction. So beyond a few youthful dalliances, women in Alden can look forward to the same futures as their real-world medieval counterparts, with all the potential misery that implies.

It’s a similar story when it comes to women in the military. Yes, women serve in the Kingswords, in great numbers. An Aldenian woman doesn’t need to dress up as a man or endure the scorn of society in order to fight in the war; she has her own place in the army. But make no mistake – it is a place, one she is given, not one she chooses for herself. Women are physically weaker than men, so with a handful of exceptions, you won’t find them in the infantry or the cavalry. Women have two choices: they can be scouts, or archers. Aldenians see this as playing to the comparative advantage of each gender. Men are strong, and so placed on the front lines. Women, meanwhile, are graceful and coordinated, so they make stealthy scouts and dead-eye shots. There’s a saying in the Kingswords: It takes a woman to thread a needle. Not exactly a model of gender equality, is it?

Women can become knights, as Alix does, but only if they’re highborn. Here again, Alden isn’t exactly a bastion of equality. It’s as classist as any medieval setting. That means Alix has more freedom than her lowborn compatriots when it comes to her role in the army, but less in matters of marriage. As the daughter of a Banner House and one of the highest ranking women in the land, she has very little freedom to choose her own destiny. Oh, she can play around on the margins – a casual dalliance or two before she’s sold off, a dashing adventure in the Kingswords – but in the end, she’s expected to be a wife and a mother. (Of course, Alix has ideas of her own, and if there’s one thing she doesn’t do well, it’s follow orders.)

What it all comes down to, in my mind at least, is that while gender roles in THE BLOODBOUND are certainly different, they’re every bit as entrenched and restricting as those in other worlds. Re-cast, but still cast in stone. In some senses, therefore, while you could fairly call THE BLOODBOUND a story of girl power, I will accept no kudos for it being particularly progressive.

Unless those kudos come in the form of chocolate, in which case, I take it all back.

Author Erin Lindsey

Author Erin Lindsey

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post from Erin Lindsey: Gender in “The Bloodbound”

  1. EMoon says:

    It…certainly shouldn’t still be a Thing. Female protagonists have been around a long time. Female warriors (as solitary, or partnered, women-using-weapons, or members of a female warrior guild) have been around a long time. Female soldiers in fantasy…hmmm. Well, Marion Zimmer Bradley wrote some. So did Elizabeth Lynn, C.J. Cherryh, Barbara Hambley, and others–and that was before I did. I think (I could be wrong) that I was the first female military veteran to write epic fantasy with a female soldier protagonist (Sheepfarmer’s Daughter came out in 1988), but I certainly wasn’t the first to write a woman soldier–or the last woman veteran (Tanya Huff.) Women soldiers existed in novels, in short fiction (in quite a few anthologies and some magazines) and–as always–some in real life as well.

    Sometimes I wonder if the people who do the reviews have read anything written more than five years ago. There’s nothing unusual about having women with more sexual freedom, more freedom to take on (some) male roles in fantasy fiction–not for decades. For one thing, medieval scholarship has progressed, revealing a more varied social organization. For another, more women are writing (and publishing) epic fantasy, fantasy with female protagonists, and refusing to treat real history as the only foundation for their stories. They aren’t writing medieval history, even when they use apparently medieval settings.

    So you’re in excellent company, and if people still think it’s unusual or odd…well, eventually they’ll learn. But it’s taking longer than I rather hoped it would. Best wishes for your success in this business.

  2. Erin Lindsey says:

    I think you’re spot on about short memories. I’m not nearly as conversant in the genre as I’d like to be, but even I can rattle off a few examples of female soldier protagonists in traditional fantasy. Granted, they’re still a relatively small minority within the genre, but they’re certainly out there. And female protagonists in general are commonplace. Hence my surprise at how consistently gender has been raised in associated with The Bloodbound. (I’d estimate that about 75% of reviewers so far have mentioned it in one way or another.) To be fair, I think the general buzz around things like GamerGate is a factor.

    It’s important to keep pushing the issue of gender (and diversity in general) in SF/F, but the discussion shouldn’t be ahistorical. That does a disservice to those who came before, such as yourself, and to the progress that has already been made. An important part of consolidating that progress is recognising it; continuing to treat it is as “new” and “fringe” becomes self-fulfilling, at least in my mind.

    Thanks for the well wishes, and fingers crossed!

  3. There are real cultures which granted women more rights than they did in the Western world, such as the Native American or the Muslim ones (until the 20th century), and it would be fascinating to set a female character using real rights that did exist in that culture than doing “what if” with Western history.

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